Politics in the Face of a Climate Disaster

In 2015, when the Paris Agreement was still under negotiations, British journalist Paul Mason expressed his doubts whether the agreement would be signed and wrote that such climate conferences „resemble the peace treaties that paved the way to the Second World War."[1] Although Mason was wrong about one thing – the agreement was signed –

In 2015, when the Paris Agreement was still under negotiations, British journalist Paul Mason expressed his doubts whether the agreement would be signed and wrote that such climate conferences „resemble the peace treaties that paved the way to the Second World War."[1] Although Mason was wrong about one thing – the agreement was signed – the comparison was apt. All we need to do is compare the aims of the Paris Agreement with real actions of the ruling powers in the last few years.

In the Paris Agreement governments pledged to keep the rise of global temperature under 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2018[2] that we only have 12 years to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. In these 12 years "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes" must be carried out, the most important of which is a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 and carbon neutrality by 2050. If we fail to limit the rise of global temperature to 1.5°C and come closer to 2°C, this half-degree difference will cause dramatic consequences: for example, all coral reefs will die and the Arctic will be ice-free during summers. Limiting it to 1.5°C means that the chances of ice-free summers in the Artic fall 10 times, some coral reefs will survive, and the global sea levels will rise by 10 cm less than in the 2°C scenario. Chances of extreme heat waves fall by half: they will happen, but less often and will be less widespread. But even the 1.5°C scenario is dangerous: some ecosystems will get a fatal blow and changes in climate will cause serious political tensions, for example, a warmer climate will cause immense migration flows. The biggest threat is the so-called "tipping points", when some climate changes start to influence others and the process becomes uncontrollable. According to the IPCC, there are no guarantees that such a situation will be avoided under the 1.5°C scenario. Thus, achieving the 1.5°C limit does not imply that we will be safe. The temperatures have already risen by 1°C compared to pre-industrial levels and we can observe how climate will change as it gets warmer: more intense droughts, heatwaves, uncontrollable fires, melting glaciers, dangerous storms, and other forms of extreme weather are already becoming commonplace.

However, the gravest part of the IPCC report deals with what has been done since the Paris Agreement. Experts argue that, when taking into account the current actions and commitments of the governments, the planet will get warmer by 3°C by 2100. That would be a disaster. Despite all the promises to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C, real actions of the ruling classes lead towards an increase twice as big. Many international tendencies cause concern: for example, the International Energy Agency in its 2019 report surveys the existing commitments of governments and argues that oil production will not fall until 2040.[3] A journalistic investigation by The Guardian revealed that top three assets managers have built a 300bn $ fossil fuel investment portfolio and use their power to routinely oppose actions by the companies which they invested in to take more responsibility for climate changes.[4] Production of plastic, despite all pledges to lower our dependency on it, by 2030, according to one study, will increase by almost 40 %.[5] Those capital groups that pollute the planet the most clearly show that they have no intension of stopping the destruction of the planet.

The situation is aggravated by right-wing politicians who serve the interests of this capital. In November 2019 Donald Trump officially initiated the process of withdrawing the USA from the Paris Agreement. Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, has opened vast areas of Amazon for economic "development"; this dramatically increased the speed of deforestation. According to the official government data, from January to July 2019 almost 10 000 sq. km. of Amazon forest were lost; in July 2019 the daily rate of deforestation reached 73 sq. km.[6] On top of that, huge fires swept through Amazon in 2019. But Brazil"s foreign minister thinks that climate change is "a Marxist plot". In late 2019 – early 2020 catastrophic fires swept through Australia, but Australia"s prime minister Scott Morrison continues to downplay the seriousness of climate change, supports the coal industry, and says that Australia will tackle climate change without doing unnecessary damage to the economy – in other words, to the coal industry (to show what an enthusiastic supporter of the coal industry he is, Morrison once brought a lump of coal to the Parliament). In the 2019 elections in the UK, only the Labour party offered a plan to deal with the climate crisis that showed the necessary ambition; but their traumatic defeat and Boris Johnson"s victory means that climate issues will not be a priority. A journalistic investigation carried out at the end of 2019 revealed that fossil fuel companies generously support the Tories and that the actual voting records of Tory politicians show quite the opposite intentions than the official (and abstract) pledges to fight climate change.[7]

Does the European Green Deal give reasons for optimism that the climate crisis will be adequately death with? The EU aims to cut carbon emissions by half by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050: it is exactly what the IPCC called for. In the current global context, this is a significant pledge. But there are several reasons to be cautious and critical. Climate activists have immediately observed that the aims are too low: for example, the deal includes 1 trillion Euros from the European Investment Bank"s funds to subsidise private companies" investments in climate and 100bn Euros to form the Just Transition Fund. To compare, Labour in their 2019 manifesto promised to set up a 400bn £ National Transformation Fund for the UK alone, and climate scientists and activists behind the New Green Deal for Europe (NGD)[8] demand at least 10 trillion Euros in public investments over 10 years to ensure Europe"s transformation. The conservatism of the European Green Deal becomes more evident when we look at other differences between it and the NGD. The NGD aims at empowering local communities to take part in the decision-making process regarding the allocation of funds: democratization and grassroots participation is essential in order for the economic transformation to be carried out according to the needs of communities, and not solely on the basis of private profit and GDP growth criteria. The NGD demands public investments (as opposed to subsidising private companies) to construct new infrastructure and secure essential public services to all EU citizens, thus fighting economic inequalities and ending the so-called energy poverty when people are unable to pay basic energy bills (electricity, heating etc.); ending the privatization policies and expanding the public sector; ending subsidies for fossil fuel and restricting private investments in fossil fuel; drastically reforming the financial sector and ending austerity; and transferring more responsibility to those who profited and continue to profit from environmental destruction. In other words: to fight climate change we must transform our current economic and political model. The European Green Deal seeks to avoid that: despite all the Usula von der Leyen"s talks about transforming the economy, the European Green Deal seeks to maintain high GDP growth and fiscal responsibility, and to promote change towards renewable energy through the market. The neoliberal dogma that the market will fix everything is maintained, all we have to do is push it the right direction. Besides, the fiscal discipline aspect is particularly at odds with the aspirations of the European Green Deal: it is interesting to see how the necessary speed and scale of the transformation will be guaranteed when worrying about not spending too much.

The European Green Deal is only a strategy so there is a long process in which the objectives set will have to be translated into concrete measures and guaranteed funding. Here we face another issue that causes concern. Such deals are reached by approval of all member-states. But the European Green Deal was approved by making exceptions to Poland which refused to accept the deadline for carbon neutrality. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki says that his country will achieve carbon neutrality at its own pace. The fact that such exceptions are being made in this stage only reveals how fragile the current power balance in Europe is. We can reasonably expect that, with deadlines approaching, more countries will demand their own pace.

It looks like the Lithuanian government also seeks its own pace: despite the fact that, according to the estimates of GreenMatch (a company in the UK), Lithuania is most severely hit by climate change of all European countries (as measured by sea level, air and water temperature and changes in precipitation)[9], there were draughts in Lithuania three years in a row, and 2019 was the hottest year on record, the government still cut some funds from The Climate Change programme in 2020 budget in order to abide by the fiscal discipline requirements. The climate is not a priority for the Lithuanian peasants and the Greens[10].

Thus, when observing the actions of the ruling classes in the face of a climate disaster, it is easy to see analogies with the 2008 financial crisis: instead of punishing the culprits, the governments took action to save the economic model that served their interests and pushed everyone else into the swirl of austerity policies. Faced with the climate disaster, the current ruling class avoids taking rapid action demanded by scientists and activists but seeks to save those who are most responsible for the current situation (this is done by Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson, and other right-wingers), or, at best, seeks change that would not conflict with the interests of capital.

Nevertheless, when scientists are stressing with increased vigour that nothing essential is being done and climate change is accelerating year after year, new mass protest movements have emerged demanding immediate action. In August 2018 Greta Thunberg initiated a youth climate protest. The success of the movement is impressive: the "Global Week for Future", held in September 2019, is believed to be the biggest climate protest in history, with protests happening in almost every country and the total number of participants reaching 6 million.[11] There were protests in Lithuania as well: the "Week for Future" protest on September 27 attracted, according to the organizers, some 500 people. However, the success of the youth protests also reveals some weaknesses of these protests. Aiming at mass support they use quite abstract demands to keep to the Paris Agreement, cut carbon emissions, invest in renewables, etc. They appeal to the current political leaders: those leaders who, in reality, support capital and give empty promises. The protesters put a lot of stress on changing consumer habits. To lower her carbon footprint, Greta Thunberg avoids plane travel. On November 29 in Vilnius protesters gathered in the front of a shopping mall to appeal to consumer consciousness. The slogans of the protesters were varied: in addition to demands for decisive political measures, we also find calls for more garbage sorting or ditching meat consumption. But there is a danger of forgetting who the most responsible for the climate crisis are. No, we are not all equally responsible. The uneven distribution of responsibility for the climate crisis can be seen from the fact that only 100 companies are responsible for 71 % of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.[12] Without dismissing the importance of individual ecologic consciousness we must demand that the main responsibility is placed on those who caused this crisis.

Much more radicalism was demonstrated by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) that started in the UK in May 2018. Dissatisfied with peaceful protest and abstract demands XR activists took direct action against fossil fuel companies (for example, blocking roads and bridges near their headquarters) and provoking politicians (for example, glueing themselves to Jeremy Corbin"s house fence). XR actions were successful in attracting media attention to their demands, and, as Jacobin wrote, they "pissed off the right people"[13]. XR demands are much more radical: they want the UK to reach carbon neutrality by 2025 and to create a Citizens" Assembly as a central decision-making organ that would ensure that necessary action is taken to halt climate change and biodiversity loss.

The protests have achieved a lot: several countries, and eventually the European Parliament, have declared a climate emergency. This was demanded by the XR and by the youth strikes. However, the declaration of the climate emergency (and the European Green Deal) does not mean victory yet; the necessary changes will not be achieved without bringing to power those politicians who are truly committed to carrying out the transformation and without increasing the democratic pressure from below. And, what is most important, we will not be successful in tackling the climate crisis without radically reforming the current economic and political status quo. It is the current model, based on a huge imbalance of power between capital and labour, that has enabled capital to devastate nature uncontrollably. The old leftist slogan "socialism or barbarism" takes on new meanings in the face of a climate disaster: it is the current situation that is barbarous, when, knowing what a serious threat climate change poses, the ruling class still chooses to save capital groups that are responsible for the disaster rather than take immediate and necessary action.

That is why all of us must demand what the creators of The Green New Deal for Europe and Labour Manifesto of 2019 stressed: tackling climate change requires a far-reaching political and economic transformation and a more just, democratic, and equal society. According to one study, climate change hits the poor the most and increases economic inequality.[14] We must ensure that the transition to carbon neutrally is not carried out at the expense of the workers already impoverished by austerity but by those who are the most responsible for the current crisis. We must change the power balance, not simply the technological basis of capitalism. We must demand that the transition from fossil fuel to a carbon-neutral economy is as rapid as possible and that the new greener forces of production serve the majority and not the interest of private capitalists. Massive and rapid change is needed to limit the climate crisis to the best of bad scenarios (1.5 °C increase). Only the pressure from below and the expansion of democracy will ensure the rapidity and scale of changes and that the transformation benefits us all.


  1. Paul Mason, Postcpitalism: a guide to our future. Penguin, p. 251.
  2. ipcc: SPECIAL REPORTGlobal Warming of 1.5 ºC. Special Report
  3. iea: Oil
  4. TheGuardian.com, Patrick Greenfield: World’s top three asset managers oversee $300bn fossil fuel investments. The polluters
  5. WWF: Solving Plastic Pollution Through Accountability
  6. TheGuardian.com, Jonathan Watts: Amazon fires: what is happening and is there anything we can do?. Amazon rainforest
  7. On ties between the Torries and fossil fuel comanpies see here: TheGuardian.com, Jonathan Watts and Pamela Duncan: MPs and the oil industry: who gave what to whom?. The polluters; on Torry voting record: TheGuardian.com, Sandra Laville and Matthew Taylor: Scientists and climate advisers condemn Tory environmental record. Environment
  8. Green New Deal for Europe
  9. greenmatch, Michelle Schlechtriem: Mapped: Impact of Climate Change on European Countries. Climate Change in Europe
  10. The current ruling party is called Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union.
  11. TheGuardian.com, Matthew Taylor, Jonathan Watts and John Bartlett: Climate crisis: 6 million people join latest wave of global protests. School climate strikes
  12. The Carbon Majors Database
  13. Jacobin Magazin, Dawn Foster: Rebelling Against Climate Death. Environment
  14. Deutsche Welle, Irene Banos Ruiz: Climate change reinforces inequalities – even in developed countries. Environment